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Once again, not enough water when it was needed

Published June 22, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - For the second time in a year, Pinellas firefighters struggled to get enough water to put out a raging fire in an aging condominium complex.

Unlike last summer's fire at the Dolphin Cove condominiums in Clearwater, no lives were lost in Saturday's blaze at the Town Apartments North condominiums. But questions about the lack of water came early as residents and bystanders watched flames shoot from the roof of a building in the complex in unincorporated Lealman.

When bystander Jim Simmons saw only one hose on the flames, he asked a Pinellas Park firefighter, "How come there aren't more trucks pouring water?"

Jim Batista, the firefighter, shook his head.

"There is no more water," Batista answered.

Part of the problem was the lack of hydrants in the complex, Lealman Fire Chief Rick Graham said. The entire complex had two. The closest was about 800 feet from the burning building; the second was farther away.

The complex was built in the late 1960s and had no sprinklers, residents said. Graham said officials did not have information Saturday to determine if the complex met the code requirements for the time it was built.

Firefighters eventually were able to bring more water to the battle: They hooked up to two public hydrants outside the complex and rigged a system to drain water from the complex's retention pond.

But all that took time, something firefighters did not have, Graham said.

When firefighters first arrived, he said, condominium residents were still in harm's way, enveloped by the black smoke. The first duty was to get them to safety.

"People first, property second, and they did their job," Graham said.

Once firefighters could concentrate on the flames, it was too late. It had been too late from the time the engines arrived, Graham said.

"This thing was already out of control when they got here. They were playing catch up," he said. "I have not seen a fire move that fast through a building in my career."

Graham is a 15-year veteran.

Adding to that was the wind, which shifted and pushed the fire so it acted "like a blowtorch," he said.

Traffic became a problem when firefighters began ferrying loads of water to engines battling the blaze. Gawkers had parked cars in the way of emergency vehicles, making it hard to go to and from the hydrants. And the sheer number of emergency vehicles in a tight space also meant they sometimes got in one another's way.

The other solution - draining the nearby retention pond - was fraught with difficulties because fire personnel do not carry the necessary equipment on their trucks.

A Pinellas Park staff member went back to his station to retrieve the equipment.

Graham acknowledged the many difficulties, but he resisted any comparison with the deadly Dolphin Cove condominium fire. That fire, on June 28, 2002, claimed two lives and injured several others as firefighters screamed for water.

In that fire, Graham said, the hydrant nearest the blaze was broken and did not work.

Firefighters were never completely without water Saturday, they just "didn't have enough quickly enough," he said.

"We did have a water supply here," Graham said. "The fire was bigger than what the water supply could handle."

- Times staff writer Leanora Minai contributed to this report.

[Last modified June 22, 2003, 01:33:03]

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